Friday, June 12, 2009

In memory of Audrey McGinn

Audrey died of cancer on the morning of May 8. She was my classmate in Marie Ponsot's poetry thesis workshop, a year-long course on shaping a sheaf of poems into a book. She looked younger than her age, dressed carefully, almost distinguished, and talked with the soft and musical precision she must have advocated in classrooms for years.

I do not have her manuscript now, having thrown it out, along with other manuscripts from that class, during a bout of spring-cleaning. I do not remember its title. I remember the poems are about her grandfather and World War One. The poems are about Audrey's memories of her Scottish grandfather, and her journey, through art, literature and travel, to find out the meaning of the war. 

Some of the poems relied for their effect on stock images of that war, such as rats in trenches. Other poems put up with too much literary freight. But there were poems that stopped my heart: a collage of memories written in long, lonely lines; a narrative about visiting battle sites in Belgium; a small, tight, formal poem about a neglected corner of the world. 

Why the obsession with the grandfather and the war? The grandfather, who migrated to America after the war, was a curious figure to the child Audrey. He was otherworldly, not in a hopelessly mystical sense, but in a historically literal one. As a war veteran, he was a figure of romance and reality. Audrey never married. The poems about the grandfather were not erotic, but they were suffused with a longing for a nobler past. 

And did the war remind Audrey of the war in her body? The trench-fighting. The smoky break. The ignominious end. She was too decorous a poet to compare her suffering to a world war, but she could not let go the historical subject, and, in holding on to that subject, made it her own. 

Some poets have only one subject, or it may be truer to say that a subject sometimes makes one a poet. A grandfather and a war made Audrey McGinn a poet. In the first is life, in the second is death. And so Audrey made life and death her work.

1 comment:

scavella said...

This is a fine, fine obituary, Jee.